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“Put Off, Put On”

Ephesians 4:17-24
Bob DeGray
April 17, 2016

Key Sentence

The old self is disgusting; put on the new!


I. The old thinking led to impurity. (Ephesians 4:17-19)
II. The new thinking leads to righteousness. (Ephesians 4:20-24)


Last spring, just before the heat of summer fully hit, a number of us helped Iva Foster replace her roof. Actually, that was about the sixth or so roof some of us have worked on since Hurricane Katrina. And one of the things I’ve learned is that roofing the way I do it is really hard on blue jeans. I remember coming home from Iva’s last year, exhausted, of course, but also just filthy. Sitting on the roof in the heat just baked the asphalt into my pants, so that I smelled like a new paved road. And the jeans can’t be cleaned. They are fit only for the dumpster. And you can hardly be cleaned. You shower for an hour with good harsh soap and lots of scrubbing, and only then are you fit for clean clothes.

This is the way Paul spoke about the ingrained sin that pollutes the life of non-believers and which must be dealt with by new and maturing believers. But it’s not external. I’ve had a second experience in recent years which I believe I’ve spoken to you about. A while back I started to smell something nobody else could smell, smelling it in my nose, or in my head. I called it ‘phantom smell’ and it got really strong. And it smelled terrible. It smelled like sweet rotten meat. After a while I figured out it was a reaction to artificial sweetener. And I haven’t had a Diet Coke since. It turns out I’m so sensitive I can’t use regular toothpaste. It has artificial sweetener. So the rot, the chemical, is inside my head, but I can keep it from being a problem by changing my behavior.

Both of these images, then, illustrate what people are like before they trust Christ, and what people can do after they trust Christ. If we looked with spiritual eyes, we would see that the hearts of all around us, are either accumulating layers of filth and deadening layers of hardness toward God, or shedding the filth, being washed and clothed in righteousness and holiness. Paul does see with spiritual eyes, and exhorts each individual who has been saved by the grace of Jesus to be renewed in life and thinking. His image is of ‘new clothing for the mind,’ and his message is simple: It’s time to replace the rot, to take off the filthy clothing. The old ways of thinking we used to live in, that still come so easily, lead to hardness of heart and impurity of life. The new thoughts of a renewed mind lead to righteousness and holiness. The old self is disgusting, it’s time to adorn your mind with clean new thoughts.

Ephesians 4 began with the turning point of the whole letter, the exhortation to live a life worthy of the calling we have received. It continued with the invitation to unity and maturity as members of the Body of Christ. Now, Paul will help his readers work out their new lives in Christ, first reminding them that their old thinking led, step by step, to impurity, to spiritual filth.

Ephesians 4:17-19. Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, to the practice every kind of impurity, greedy for more.

He warns them emphatically, solemnly telling the truth as one who is ‘in the Lord’: Don’t live the way you used to live. Don’t think the way the non-believers think. There ought to be a real difference between you and the Gentiles. He is writing to Gentiles, but to those for whom the designations ‘Jew’ and ‘Gentile’ have lost meaning. They are now part of a new race, the Church, the Body of Christ: a new nation. “You of this new nation” he says, “must no longer live like your old race. You can be different, not remaining in the futility of their thinking.” The word ‘futility’ is used in Greek translations of the Ecclesiastes. “Vanity, vanity” is that book’s refrain as it contemplates life apart from God. Meaningless or futile is its description of the ways of the world.

The thinking of unsaved people is ultimately futile, as it leads in a downward spiral to darkness and impurity. Paul describes this downward path in a series of devastating phrases, comparable to the expressions of Romans 1:18-31. John Stott has carefully mapped the steps in these verses. He says there are four: hardness of heart, darkness of mind, deadness of soul, and recklessness in sin.

First, hardness of the heart. This is the root of man’s condition. Verse 18: “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” The Greek word is ‘porosis’ from which we get our word porous and osteoporosis. The word originally meant not a substance with open spaces, but the strong rock around the spaces. It came to mean the hardest of stones, and in Paul’s usage ‘a heart of stone’ This is reminiscent of Ezekiel 36, where God promises “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” That stony heart, hardened toward God and hardened toward others, is the heart Paul is talking about here.

A hardened heart is unable and unwilling to respond to God’s truth. The parallel text in Romans 1:18 describes “men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” What they suppress is mostly the truth that there is a creator God. Romans 1:19 says “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

Hardening of the heart begins when people deny the creator. We see this all around us. Recently a group of Chinese researchers got in trouble because their paper claimed the hand was “designed by a Creator.” Though likely a result of non-native-speaker translation and bad editing, the comment caused such an uproar the whole paper was retracted. The scientific community can’t stomach the idea of Intelligent Design, of a Creator. But it’s not just intellectual denial. It’s a fixed focus on created things, whether ourselves, our comforts, or images of men or creatures. Such hardening is as inevitable as the hardening of concrete mixed with water. Or, to change the image, as inevitable as scabs and scars on a wound, as inevitable as blindness when cataracts grow over the eyes. In fact, the Greek word was used for both these medical phenomena.

Hardness of heart, spiritual blindness, leads to ignorance, or darkness. The first part of verse 18 says “They are darkened in their understanding.” This is, of course, spiritual understanding. The intellects of the unsaved are active, clever and creative. But spiritually their understanding is darkened. Again, the parallel to Romans 1 which says “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools.”

The third step is deadness, or spiritual death. Verse 18: “alienated from the life of God,” or “excluded from the life of God.” To be excluded from Gods’s life is to be spiritually dead. And such separation is the result of our sin. Isaiah 59:2 “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you.” The parallel to this in Romans 1 is that dreadful phrase that Paul uses three times: “God gave them up.” God, who from eternity past had kept a good grip on what he had created, when he saw that his creation yearned for sin, gave them up, let them go into the darkness they craved.

Hardness toward God is followed by darkness or ignorance of God, followed by separation from God through sin, followed by reckless wallowing in sin. Verse 19: They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, to the practice every kind of impurity, greedy for more.” The callous heart, the fully hardened heart feels no conscience. Once God lets sinners go in the direction their sins take them, there is no boundary to stop them from progressing to sin of every kind. To sensuality: the Greek word literally means sin without restraint. To impurity: not just theory but the actual practice of unchecked lust. To greed: grasping and groping for more and more.

So there is this downward spiral of hardness, darkness, deadness, and recklessness. It is a descent into sin. It’s the progressive dirtying of body and mind, an accumulation of profane thought processes that becomes inescapable.

The question is, do we observe the pattern of moral decay in our culture? Some students of the Bible argue that Paul is exaggerating here, grossly overstating the case considering how many people are moral and live basically decent lives without extravagant sin. And it’s true. Not every person we meet shows the extreme depths of sinful recklessness described here. Thank God. What we see instead, is the spiral effect. As we look around us, we see many individuals who are in the stage of hardness or hardening of heart. They don’t have much interest in giving God his place as creator, in fact they probably cling with abject faith to the theory of evolution, because it keeps them from having to deal with a creator. This allows the culture to focus on self, as it has for years. On my pleasure, satisfaction, convenience, not God’s desires.

The second level in this funnel is that of darkness. More and more we see today, that people are ignorant of God, willfully ignorant in many cases. Our culture once might have been called a Christian culture, in that Christianity and a Christian world view were prevalent. There was a pool of shared Biblical knowledge, and Biblical ideas. But no longer. We are now characterized by Biblical ignorance, even among those who claim to be evangelical, and by ignorance of God and his moral law, of absolutes and even the existence of absolutes.

This ignorance gives those alienated from the life of God tremendous influence. They feel justified in working to deny and derail the influences of God. In our culture they work to eliminate God-given and world spanning categories of social order from public life, to create a public morality based only on a so-called tolerance. Christians, they say, can believe whatever they want, but it must not affect public morals, public actions, or public words. If it does you will be attacked, especially in social media, and in many cases prosecuted by the government. We’ve seen it over and over in the courts in the last few years, especially in the arena of so-called LGBT rights, and I don’t think it will be long before this public persecution comes through the doors of the church.

Finally, at the bottom of the funnel is recklessness, those who’ve lost all control and are sold out to impurity, violence, and sensuality, greedy more. These people aren’t hard to find. They are pornographers, pandering to the addiction of lust. They are traffickers, trapping girls in all kinds of sexual degradation including pornography. They are drug dealers, an industry that generates stronger, more addictive, more deadly forms of illegal highs. Finally, there are the murderers, even mass murderers. When you keep telling people there is no right and wrong, some will decide that even murder is their right if they feel wronged. Across the world in recent decades these have been joined by the followers of radical Islam whose alienation from the true God justifies suicide and mass murder, honoring a dark, false view of God. They have lost all restraint.

But, you will protest, these things are done by only a small minority. Most people aren’t like this. But that’s exactly my point. Whether in Paul’s day or ours, not everybody has reached the point of reckless evil. There are some who will never sink that low even in a lifetime lived away from God. Many of your friends and your neighbors have not thrown off all restraint. But they’re in the funnel: that’s where they’re headed. And if you examined their lives closely, their private thoughts and words and deeds, you might find that sin is more pervasive in those lives than you ever imagined.

Paul tells us all this to emphasize that now, as believers, we must not live like that. There was clearly a real danger that those who became believers would remain in that funnel, in that downward spiral, in hardness and darkness, even recklessness. There is still that danger today. Becoming a believer does not automatically clean up all the dirt of your life. God gives us a new heart, but does not immediately break the mind’s habits of sin. We can all still descend through that funnel, sometimes at a more restrained level than we did, in our families or in our thought life, but still trapped in that downward cycle.

That’s why, as believers, it’s time to put off the filthy habits that have adorned our minds. God can give us an new kind of thinking, an upward spiral that leads to righteousness, sanctification. Ephesians 4:20-24: But that is not the way you came to know Christ!— 21assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22to put off your old self, which belongs to your former way of life and is being corrupted through its deceitful desires, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Just as the path to impurity comes from successive layers of wrong thinking, so also it is our thoughts and our thought life and what fills our thoughts that sets us on the path to a life of righteousness and holiness.

This new thought life begins with education, and the name of the course is Jesus. Look at what Paul says: “First you learned Christ. Second you heard him, Third, you were taught in Him.” These expressions evoke the image of a school, a classroom in which Christ himself is the subject. At some point Paul’s readers were learning about Christ, getting to know Christ, not only as their Savior, the one who died, rose and reigns, but as Lord, the one who rules a kingdom of righteousness, and who makes moral demands on our lives as his followers. Paul says “you didn’t come to know a Christ through this downward spiral nor a Christ who sanctions this downward spiral.” The darkness and alienation of the old life are the exact opposite of what we learn when we hear and accept the good news about Christ.

Secondly, Jesus who is the subject of their teaching is himself also the teacher. You heard about him, but in the Greek it only says ‘you heard him.’ Paul assumes that through the voice of their Christian teachers they actually heard Christ’s voice. Thus, when sound biblical moral instruction is being given, it may be said that Christ is teaching about Christ. This is why in preaching my goal is to say again the Scripture says, so that it is not my voice that compels you to change, but the very voice of Christ himself speaking through the Word.

You learned him. You heard him. Finally, you were taught in him. Just as he is the subject of the teaching, and the teacher, so also he is the classroom. It is only in Jesus that you can learn of Jesus. Just as a foreign language is best learned by immersion in the country and culture, so Jesus is best learned by immersion in Jesus. Truth is in Jesus. Real knowledge is in Jesus. Light is in Jesus.

What exactly is this truth that is in Jesus? If heathen darkness leads to reckless sin, what is the truth which sets Christians free Verses, 22-24, give the answer. To ‘learn Christ’ is to take hold of the new creation which he made possible, an entirely new life. It is putting off our old humanity like a rotten garment and putting on like clean clothing the new humanity recreated in God’s image.

This is the truth that is in Jesus. Paul is reminding them of the truth they already learned, that the living response to being in Jesus is to put off, to be made new, to put on. This reminder, for those in Christ, is of a process that is rooted in your conversion, impossible without salvation by grace, faith in Jesus Christ. Just as the Gentiles are involved in a process that leads to impurity, so we are involved in a process that leads to purity: to put off, to be renewed, to put on.

What do we put off? Verse 22, ‘you were taught to put off the old self?’ Literally ‘the old man,’ the life of hardness, darkness, deadness, and reckless sin. That old self, those old clothes, were not only rotten but rotting, actively rotting, being corrupted. The word picture is of meat rotting, which I refused to make the visual theme this week. The old person, the old self, the old mind was in the funnel, chasing deceitful lusts down to destruction. Foulkes says ‘The lusts, the self-centered desires that belong to that old way of life are deceitful in that they promise joy and gain but cannot fulfill that promise. Instead they lead to the pollution and the spoiling of what God has made.

These past sins, this past way of life, this old clothing is to be put off in a decisive act. The verb, though not an imperative, does indicate decisive action at a single point in time. At your conversion, when you became a believer, you were taught, or should have been, to put off your old clothing. Just as those who work on a roof go home and decisively take off their stained jeans, so we too, by a decisive act, take off and set aside the whole old person that we were.

Another mental picture for this could be that scab. The descriptions in the previous verses had medical overtones, especially that word ‘hardening,’ and you could imagine a scab building up on the skin, as this alienation from God expressed itself. Now the command is to scrape the scab off, and when you do, at the right time, you don’t find a raw wound: you find pink, smooth, renewed skin.

Put off the old, the dirty, by a decisive act, and then verse 23, “be renewed in the spirit of your minds.” Be renewed. Like the skin under the scab is renewed. Like the roofer washed clean is renewed. Two important thing about this verb: First, unlike putting off, this one is present tense and continuous. It is not something you do once, but it is a continuous process.

Second, being renewed is passive, a passive verb. What does that mean? An active verb acts: “I turn back. I repent.” The subject of the sentence performs the action. But a passive verb indicates that the subject of the sentence is acted upon, and the one doing the action is implied. You are to be renewed. You are the subject of the sentence, but you are not doing the renewing. Someone else is: God is. Jesus is. As those who have believed in Christ, we are in Christ, and in him we are renewed. When I was young, if something happened like a sprained ankle, or a bruise or sore feet, my mother would make me soak in Epson Salt. The theory was that by being immersed in this curative medium, my foot would be renewed. I have no idea whether the Epson Salt worked. But Jesus works. By being immersed in Jesus I am renewed.

Anyone who is ‘in Christ’ Paul says is a new creature. Christ does the renewing. Our part is to remain immersed in him. What does that mean? It means, simply, but above all, the Word and prayer. I’m reading Tim Keller’s book and he says prayer is the continuation of a conversation started by God. Where does God speak? In his Word. We hear him through the word, we respond to him in prayer. Immersion also implies trust. We see the events and trials of daily life as opportunities to depend on and trust Jesus. It implies service, being sold out, a person whose first priority every day is the service of the king. Paul says it in Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Immersed in Christ, with our responsibility being to stay immersed in Christ, we are renewed. Imperceptibly, continuously, over time, we are renewed. Just as the skin you now have is not the skin you had five years ago, but is a completely renewed set of skin without you even noticing, so Jesus renews us, little by little, as we remain immersed in him. Put off the old self, take off the dirty clothes and jump in. Immerse yourself in Jesus and you will be renewed.

And finally, put on. Put on the new self, the clean clothes over the new person. Put on a new mind, new thinking, in contrast to the old way of life, the old way of thinking. This new self is created to be like God in righteousness and true holiness. The old way of thinking led to impurity. The new way of thinking is meant to be clean. It is meant to lead to white garments, garments of purity, garments of holiness: new clothing for the mind. It’s time to replace the filth.

God has recreated you, believer, made you again, made you new, and has designed you to be something no person has been able to be since the fall, except for Jesus; holy and righteous. Created to be like God in true righteousness. If you can’t get a handle on that, neither could the Apostle John. He says in 1 John 3:2 “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him - like Jesus - for we shall see him as he is.” The outcome of immersion in Jesus is a new way of life. The old way of life with its hardness, darkness, separation and reckless sin is to be decisively left behind. The new way of life is to be like Jesus, to be transformed by the renewing of your mind into his likeness. 2 Corinthians 3:18 “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

We are transformed into his image: righteous and holy, pure in thought, act and deed. This is a whole new way of life. And Paul is going to give us example after example of that life, that radical life, that righteous-like-Jesus life, in the rest of the letter. For now the application I want you to take away this week is to decisively remove that filthy clothing that still clings to you. And to immerse yourself in Jesus. Heart, soul, mind and strength focused on Jesus and on being like Jesus. Immerse yourself in him as a cool mountain pool for the soul weary with sin. He promises you a fresh white garment for your life, a garment to which no stain can adhere, a garment of righteousness and holiness.